Helping students fight opioid addiction

A board featured during a recent recovery conference held at Minneapolis College by its Collegiate Recovery Program. Participating students wrote on the board what recovery means to them. (Photo: Minneapolis College)

Bret Frazier’s first attempt at attending community college ran aground due to his opioid addiction.

“My goal was to have fun and party, and meet people who were like-minded,” he says. “I had two semesters of medical withdrawals. I was living at home, in a community I was comfortable with, knew how to navigate, and connected to people, where I knew to get stuff. And no matter where you go, people are going to be able to find — if that’s what they’re looking for — substances, or people who are using them.”

But Frazier, who considers himself “a person in long-term recovery,” got himself clean, finished his degree and now works to help others do the same as technical assistance coordinator for the Association for Recovery in Higher Education (AHRE), a nationwide group that works with community and technical colleges among others.

“We all know how dangerously addictive opiates are, and how they can play on anybody prescribed an opiate for medical reasons,” he says. “There are a ton of recovery supports. That’s one of the goals for AHRE, to make sure we are providing resources and opportunities for community colleges to build recovery processes on their campuses.”

Higher hurdles

Community colleges face higher hurdles in some senses than their four-year university counterparts, Frazier says, including shorter amounts of time on campus and fewer resources available.

“It’s something we’re seeing a lot more, with everything that’s been going on in the higher education world, with … less funding available for the institution,” he says. “It’s tough to do collegiate recovery work without dedicated staff members.”

Noel Vest, an assistant professor of community health sciences at Boston University who is part way through an in-depth study of collegiate recovery programs — and who attended Columbia Basin College in Pasco, Washington — sees similar challenges.

“They don’t have a lot of on-campus students, which limits the availability to do any kind of recovery-based meetings,” he says. “The foundation of most of them is a drop-in center and mutual help meetings … where they talk about issues related to substance abuse, or college life in general. The resources and the potential for a collegiate recovery program, it’s going to look a little different.”

While Vest is relatively early in his research, which will include national surveys of program directors and students; qualitative interviews with students, staff, directors and college administrators; and the construction of a toolkit of best practices. He noted that so far roughly 20% of the students who have filled out the surveys are either from small schools or community colleges.

Many campuses offer direct health services like naloxone to reverse overdoses, but at their heart, collegiate recovery programs are about building a community for students battling a substance abuse disorder, Frazier says. Schools often facilitate meetings through their wellness centers, including programming that students attend.

Former addicts as counselors

AHRE is the guiding body for professional collegiate recovery programs. Among the colleges that have worked with AHRE is Montgomery County Community College in suburban Philadelphia, where Dominic Ciccimaro serves as peer support specialist. Like Frazier, he has his own story to tell about addiction to opioids, along with amphetamines and alcohol. Rehab took care of the latter, but Ciccimaro relapsed into opioid addiction, gained a dangerous amount of weight and was “about to die,” he says.

Also like Frazier, Ciccimaro got clean and became motivated to become part of the solution for others. He went through a certificate program at Montgomery County and participated as a student in the campus recovery group.

“My world opened up huge because of the two certified recovery specialists they had, and the program they had going,” he says. “It’s helped me be so happy, motivated and continue my sobriety — I have almost six years of sobriety.”

Related article: Interventions and the opioid epidemic

For a little more than a year, Ciccimaro has worked at his alma mater and administers a grant from Independence Blue Cross (IBX) Foundation that helps fund the opiate recovery program, tied to the school’s wellness center. The school also has a broader initiative called the POWER (Partnership on Work Enrichment & Readiness) program open to any student in recovery — not necessarily for opioid use.

The IBX Foundation grant that funds the opioid-oriented program has gone toward Ciccimaro working one-on-one with students in recovery as well as weekly meetings and other events.

“Some of it is more prevention education awareness stuff,” he says, adding that it also funds naloxone training programs. “The goal is to have a community of people who are students in substance use recovery that has resources. It’s more about forming that community.”

AHRE was crucial in providing guidance to building out the grant program, says Ciccimaro, who recently joined the group’s advisory council.

“They’re a phenomenal source in terms of education and guidance,” he says.

Bouncing back post-Covid

Another school that’s had an opioid addiction program for several years is Minneapolis College, launched by Jonathan Lofgren, professor of addiction counseling, in 2017 after he took a yearlong sabbatical studying recovery programs on college campuses; his was the first in Minnesota and the fifth nationally to take root at a two-year college.

Although the pandemic took a toll on participation, which plunged from about 50 students a year to 15, it’s since recovered to 20 or 25, and about 250 overall have been regular members, Lofgren says. The program has forged a collaboration with Boynton Health, the campus healthcare clinic, which provides behavioral health services and disseminates word to students who seek care, and which plans to hire a full-time recovery coordinator for 2024-25.

Lofgren says the University of Minnesota has been building out its collegiate recovery program, and Minneapolis College has also partnered with it.

“They’re a system that has a few more resources dedicated,” he says. “We’ve had this staffing matrix that’s very collaborative, in terms of people providing support to students in recovery or struggling.”

First-time referrals to the program often are not in recovery yet and still struggling with their disorders, Lofgren says. But the program has built out a dedicated space with weekly meetings and spread the word around campus. Starting in 2024-25, the program will collaborate with an office that serves incarcerated students and those about to be released.

“We’re trying to target supporting students through all the various mechanisms on campus,” Lofgren says.

Lofgren would like to see the state step up its efforts to provide seed grants to community colleges and others that want to start recovery programs.

“There’s some really good models out there that we could emulate, to have a small pot of money available,” he says. “Substance use disorder has a huge impact on college students. The numbers are higher than in society, typically. It has a huge impact on retention.”

A recovery café

Skagit Valley College in Mount Vernon, Washington, has been setting up an opioid recovery program and has made naloxone available on campus in part due to a state law that requires college campuses to do so, says Aaron Kirk, grant navigation coordinator and reentry navigator, who also has run a recovery program for formerly incarcerated students. Other states, including California, have passed similar laws.

A recovery café that’s opened up down the street from Skagit Valley’s campus has helped to boost his efforts, Kirk says.

“We do a lot of outreach at the recovery café, and we have a community corps program at a local justice center to encourage students to come check out the school and get engaged,” he says.

Skagit Valley is among seven colleges — soon to be eight — to receive collegiate recovery grants through the State of Washington Collegiate Recovery Support Initiative, administered by Washington State University (WSU), Kirk says.

“We’re working on building out what the formal supports are,” he says. “We have a strong community of students who support each other. A lot of students in that area are also in the human services program, which has a substance use disorder credential track, with a certificate and a degree. We do meet once a week.”

Learning from other programs

Patricia Maarhuis, researcher and co-principal investigator for the WSU program, says schools receive three-year project seed grants to help launch programs. They’re part of a virtual learning community that receives training; and grantees present to one another on what’s working and not working on their campuses and receive feedback. And she meets monthly to quarterly with the team on each campus.

Those moving into recovery need a supportive community, including meetings and other opportunities to meet with fellow students, Maarhuis says. Those in the grant program are encouraged to open a physical center or at least some sort of dedicated space and train and hire student staff as recovery coaches.

“They can get a two-year degree in human services, work as a recovery coach, and get state certification as a peer support specialist,” she says. “They can go out and get a really good job at a community agency, hospital or counseling center … The student-staff element, providing training and paid positions, is absolutely vital.”

About the Author

Ed Finkel
Ed Finkel is an education writer based in Illinois.
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